Question Factors influencing seedling establishment are known to vary between open sites and those protected by plant cover. In many desert regions, protected microhabitats below shrubs are essential for establishment of many cactus species. Very little is known about these factors for Andean cacti and how the importance of vegetation cover varies with cactus species. Are Andean cacti associated more frequently to vegetation cover than to open ground? Are they associated to certain shrub species? Is the distributional pattern in relation to cover similar for different cactus species? In what microhabitat (below or away from shrubs) are cactus seeds more abundant? These questions are addressed for the case of an Andean semi-desert.Location: Semi-arid tropical Andes, La Paz department, Bolivia.Methods: We examined 132 isolated shrubs ≥ 50 cm along a line across two microhabitats: areas below and away from shrubs/trees. Shrub crown size was measured. The among-shrub samples were taken from open spaces contiguous to each of the sampled shrubs. In both microhabitats, all cactus species were recorded. The cardinal direction of the cacti was also registered. Correlation between canopy diameter and number of beneficiaries was evaluated for Prosopis flexuosa. The cactus seed bank in each microhabitat was also studied.Results and Conclusions: The four cactus species found behaved differently in relation to shrub canopies. These distributional differences could be due to differences in growth form. Columnar cacti apparently need the shade of shrubs. Only the columnar species is able to grow near the base of the tallest nurse species. The opuntioid cacti studied seem more facultative: although apparently preferring shrub under-canopies, they are able to establish in open ground. The globose cactus is the most indifferent to the presence of plant cover. These patterns parallel others found in North America. The capacity of different cacti to appear in open spaces could be related to vegetative propagation, and not necessarily to seedling tolerance of heat.Nomenclature: Anderson (2001) for cacti; Beck & Valenzuela (1991) for the other families.